Being a musician is a rewarding experience. To devote more of your time to making great music, you need money to support your expenses (and buy new gear). Chances are you’ve heard about BMI and ASCAP in researching how to make money as a songwriter.
But do musicians need BMI or ASCAP to get paid? Musicians usually rely on several sources of income. Joining BMI or ASCAP is not a requirement. However, joining a performing rights organization (PRO) like one of these has many benefits.
Understandably, musicians are a little wary of signing contracts with little information. Read on to learn what you need about these PROs to make a good decision.
What is ASCAP?
The American Society of Composers (ASCAP) appeared as the first performing rights organization (PRO) back in 1914. Previously, there was little in place to ensure that songwriters were paid whenever someone played their music in saloons, restaurants, or concert halls.
The technology to record music was still in its infancy in 1914. The only way to listen to music was through paid performers and scratchy, low-fidelity gramophones.
Nevertheless, ASCAP would go on to cover a plethora of new music mediums including vinyl and digital recordings. If it wasn’t for ASCAP, we might not have the comprehensive copyright protections of today.
With ASCAP came the invention of the blanket license. The benefits of the blanket license were/are twofold. Musicians receive a reliable means of receiving passive income. Meanwhile, performers, broadcasters, and venues got legal permission to play any song by an ASCAP artist for a fixed annual fee.
What is BMI?
No, this has nothing to do with your weight or fitness level.
In the music industry, BMI stands for Broadcast Music, INC. BMI is a performing rights organization that began in 1939. It was designed to collect payment from businesses – mainly radio stations in the early days – and give the money to songwriters.
Alongside protecting artists, BMI’s secondary objective was getting the word out on new genres – and they did an effective job. Jazz, country, and the blues eclipsed classical music in the years that followed.
Ultimately, BMI was founded with a noble cause – to provide an affordable alternative to ASCAP. To this day, there are no membership dues for signing up with this PRO. Furthermore, once you sign up, you’re covered by a two-year contract.
BMI bestows similar rights to songwriters as ASCAP. It currently has over 800,000 members and is the most popular PRO in the United States.
Why Should I License My Music?
We’ve discussed what it means to license your music. In short, you can receive a license by joining a PRO like ASCAP or BMI. Afterward, anyone who performs or broadcasts your music owes you royalty payments.
“But why should I license my music?”
You should license your music so you are paid for your work. Note that you don’t need to fill out any paperwork to have a copyright. Intellectual property laws dictate that any human-made piece of art is copyrighted by default.
However, an implied copyright may not be sufficient in lawsuit scenarios. A license is critical if you don’t like the idea of other people sharing your music without your permission.
Once your music is officially licensed, you have significant legal leverage. You can demand royalties from anyone who uses it without permission. If it’s serious, you can take it to court (and probably win).
Finally, royalty payments provide passive income. Licensing your music ensures you get paid whenever someone streams or broadcasts it.
How do Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) Pay Musicians?
There are millions of songs protected by PROs being played every day. ASCAP alone processes more than one trillion performances every year. How do these organizations keep track of everything?
Blanket licenses significantly simplify the payment process. Venue owners, TV networks, streaming platforms, radio stations, etcetera purchase these licenses directly from PROs. These businesses may then play any song covered by the PRO that they wish.
Next, the PRO does a complete count of all performances. They collect data from their customers – the businesses that bought their licenses – to determine how frequently each song was played.
However, counting all performances can be costly. As non-profit organizations, PROs must be strict with their budget. Therefore, PROs often do sample surveys to predict the total number of performances. They then distribute payments to artists according to these estimates.
Which is Better, BMI or ASCAP?
Both BMI and ASCAP represent hundreds of thousands of artists. However, there are differences between them that may make one more suitable than the other.
Which is better depends on what you value.
Why ASCAP is Better
ASCAP has been around longer than any other PRO. They’ve fought for musicians for over 100 years. Needless to say, they would not still exist if they didn’t continue to offer a solid deal to songwriters.
Some pros of ASCAP include:
- Owned by its members
- Extra privileges, including access to professional music workshops
- Discounts on insurance, car rentals, hotels, and more
- Included Alliance Federal Credit Union membership
- Plenty of opportunities for publicity through ASCAP live shows
In many ways, ASCAP provides benefits like a good employer. Additionally, it features a more tight-knit community between musicians than its competitors.
The only real downside to ASCAP is the membership fee. You’ll need to cough up $50 to officially become a member. However, ASCAP argues that paying this fee will help you get paid more in the long run.
Why BMI is Better
There are plenty of arguments in favor of ASCAP. Likewise, there are several reasons to choose BMI. After all, this PRO’s original mission was to one-up ASCAP.
Notable pros of joining BMI are:
- Free memberships for songwriters
- Represents 1 million musicians, more than any other PRO
- Greatest variety of songs
- Has a wider reach than other PROs
- More up-to-date with technology
- BMI pays songwriters sooner
Ultimately, BMI has a lower barrier to entry and is more welcoming to new artists. Consequently, they are the most popular performing rights organization.
The only real negative is lack of performance opportunities. While BMI provides ways for you to promote your music, it doesn’t quite hold up to ASCAP in this regard.
Musicians Who Use ASCAP
What better way to understand an organization’s values than to look at its members? ASCAP represents numerous famous musicians from Leonard Bernstein to Justin Timberlake. But that’s far from it.
Here are some other ASCAP members you’ve definitely heard of:
- Stevie Wonder
- Katy Perry
- Ariana Grande
- Red Hot Chili Peppers
- Black Sabbath
If we kept going, we’d be here all day. Check out ASCAP’s website to discover more of their famous nominees.
Musicians Who Use BMI
Broadcast Music, INC represents over one million songwriters. With those kinds of numbers, it’s inevitable that you’ll recognize at least a few of the following names:
- Carlos Santana
- Kanye West
- Dolly Parton
- R. Kelly
- Lil Nas X
- Lady Gaga
- Foo Fighters
And of course, the list goes on.
Randomly name a famous musician and Google their PRO. Chances are high that they belong to one of the previous lists.
Other Performance Rights Organizations
While BMI and ASCAP represent the majority of songwriters, they aren’t the only performing rights organizations. The Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC) is a PRO many people overlook.
Despite the name, SESAC is an American PRO.
Paul Heinecke founded SESAC in New York City in 1930 after immigrating from Germany. Thus, it is older than BMI but younger than ASCAP. It is a for-profit organization.
Unlike the two PRO titans, you can’t join SESAC — you must be invited. But if you have the privilege, you can look forward to:
- Monthly royalty payments through direct deposit
- No membership cost
- Strong Latin representation
- Airport parking discounts
- 10% off at Sprint
- Additional miscellaneous discounts
However, since SESAC doesn’t invite many artists, you probably won’t need to weigh the pros and cons of three options.
Unless, of course, you’re lucky like:
- Axl Rose
- Green Day
- Blanco Brown
If not, don’t fret. ASCAP and BMI are diligent about fairly paying their musicians and offer many benefits.
The American Society of Composers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music, INC (BMI) are two giant performance rights organizations (PROs). They are both non-profit organizations that collectively represent nearly two million songwriters.
Joining a PRO is how you become a licensed musician. Without a license, you will not receive royalty payments. Thus, choosing between ASCAP and BMI is an important decision if you’d like to advance your music career.
Fortunately, BMI and ASCAP are genuine organizations. Firstly, they sell blanket licenses that allow businesses to play whatever they want from the PRO’s catalog — without the threat of lawsuits.
Next, they serve the vital role of tracking when, where, and how many times each of their members’ work is played. Finally, they conduct elaborate data-collection techniques to make sure that everyone is paid fairly for their music.
So while you don’t need BMI or ASCAP, it’ll make everything a heck of a lot more convenient. Performing rights organizations work hard, and they’re good at what they do.